September Book of the Month: The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

the-glass-painters-daughter-9781471151880_hrToday we’re delighted to announce our September book of the month, The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore.  First published six years ago, this has become a reading group staple and we’re delighted that Rachel will join us later in the month to take part in our very own book club chat.  And don’t worry if you’re not a member – look out for more exclusive blogs throughout September and for your chance to win a copy of the book.

We’ll leave it to Rachel to tell you more:

rachelhore“The first glimmerings of the idea that eventually became The Glass Painter’s Daughter came to me late one evening as I walked through the backstreets of Westminster. I was with my husband, returning from a party to a borrowed flat where we were to spend the night. It had been raining steadily for some time and the wet streets of Victorian houses with their black iron palings glistened with silver beauty in the soft streetlight. We turned a corner into Vincent Square, where the field at its centre was cast in darkness, and I stopped dead, struck by the odd sensation of stepping into my own past.

It was here that I had worked in a publisher’s office in my twenties, and now powerful memories of the passions I’d felt then, frustrated ambition, the pain of a love affair that went wrong, washed over me with such freshness I almost gasped. Later my mind was to roam back to that night-time incident, and to the gothic atmosphere of the web of streets between Victoria Street and the Thames, the hidden garden squares, the churches with their lovely stained glass windows. It came to me that it was the perfect setting for a story about the agonies and ecstasies of youth.

As I consulted books about the area’s history, the clearance of its slums in the mid-Victorian period, the building of the churches and the missions to the poor, a group of fictional characters began to form in my imagination. The Reverend Brownlow and his family have suffered the loss of a darling daughter and their story begins when he commissions a stained-glass window of an angel to commemorate her. It’s told from the point of view of the dead girl’s sister, Laura, who falls in love with the young artist who designs the window, but happiness is impossible, because he is married with a child. In the Brownlows’ tale of loss, confusion and yearning, there is still hope, however, and the glass angel shines out to tell them so.

This angel became the centrepiece of my novel, linking the narrative from the Victorian past to another that takes place a century later, when the window arrives in shattered pieces at a small stained-glass shop round the corner from the church. Here, Fran, daughter of the shop’s owner, and fellow craftsman Zac take on the painstaking task of repairing it. Through old papers, artefacts and a diary, they learn the story behind the window. This part also involved some careful research on my part, not only excavating some fascinating accounts about Victorian stained-glass making and artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, but taking evening classes in the craft myself, learning how to hone glass into shape without injuring myself, to solder strips of soft lead together and cement them down.

As I wrote, the subject of angels began to fascinate me and the quotes that head each chapter are the fruits of my reading: about the Biblical perception of angels as messengers of God; about nineteenth century ideas of guardian angels; and stories of people today who claim to have been helped by angels. Those readers who are interested might like to consider how some of my characters engage with different aspects of the angelic . Both Laura Brownlow and her mother, for example, struggle in different ways with the Victorian ideal of woman as ‘the angel in the house’. By giving a pure young girl, Amber, a job in the stained glass shop Fran might unwittingly have obeyed the Biblical behest and ‘entertained angels unawares’.

It’s difficult to think about churches and angels without music creeping in somewhere, and I found that Elgar’s dramatic and moving choral piece ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, which Fran sings at her choir, ran through my mind as I wrote. ‘Gerontius’ is about the journey of a human soul after death to redemption and eternal joy, and for me it represented the story of a character who is present throughout the novel, but never speaks – Fran’s dying father Edward.  The secret that lies at the heart of ‘The Glass Painter’s Daughter’ is Edward’s, and only when it is discovered can he and his daughter Fran find peace and wholeness.”

The Glass Painter’s Daughter will be re-issued in the UK by Simon & Schuster on 24th September.  Follow Rachel Hore on Twitter at @RachelHore and find out more about Rachel and her writing by visiting her website.

The Five Inescapable Truths of Becoming a Published Author by Jessica Thompson

I was just 23 years old when I signed my first book deal. Twenty three.

Working as a journalist and living in a grotty house share, I was so young and naïve it actually scares me to look back at this time. How did I survive?

My cooking abilities were so laughable it’s a wonder I attained basic nutrition. I wasn’t brilliantly practical either. If dumped in the jungle for a Bear Grylls-type challenge I would’ve likely been deceased within 24-hours, but might have left behind a rather nice poem.

Now a little older, supposedly wiser, able to cook and assemble flat pack furniture – and four novels deep – I’m delighted to be sharing my ‘inescapable truths of being a published writer’, with the Curtis Brown Book Group blog.

If you’re a fellow novelist, I’d love to know if you’ve experienced these too. Perhaps you have different truths to share? Tweet me @Jthompsonauthor

  • The more books you publish, the less sure you become.

When I completed the manuscript for my debut novel This is a Love Story’, I never in a fafillion years imagined I would be capable of three more (WTF).

Now I’ve written four, I’m already worrying about the next ones…

I can only imagine these kinds of feelings will never go away, which sounds distressing, however I think they are essential and positive. Without them, the drive to continually grow and develop, would die.

Stay curious about what you’re capable of.

  • You’ve not even slightly made it.

As embarrassing as this is to admit, my early twenties brain having just digested the news that I was to be published by an imprint of Hodder and freaking Stoughton, did instantly raise the following question.

Does this mean I’ve ‘made it’?!

Cringe. The answer is a resounding no.

It’s a wonderful, special and life-changing achievement to be published, and not something to be taken for granted. Ever. But a new kind of journey often starts here, and it’s likely to be a very bumpy ride! Ups and downs a plenty, take it all as it comes. You’re probably going to make some mistakes and there will be a lot of uncertainty.

Unless you’re a rare, overnight sensation, you’ll probably be a teeny tiny fish in a vast ocean of more experienced writers, and the best thing you can do is listen and learn from the best.

Remember, it’s easy to assume all success stories have been quick, smooth and easy. This is hardly ever the case. People don’t talk so much about the things that went wrong.

  • Never stop learning.

And on the ‘learning’ note, being a writer is not something you just ‘achieve’, whether you’re published or not. Practice, all the time. Write scary things, happy things, sad things… Write all the things.

It’s a lifelong learning curve. You’ll grow and you’ll change, just like you will as a person. It takes many varied life experiences, and years of expressing yourself through words and perfecting your craft to truly understand what you can do.

Looking at it that way, it’s actually a really exciting thought! How many other things stay and grow with you like that?

  • The first bad review will hurt.

Family and friends warned me repeatedly about this. I also questioned my brilliant agent (Curtis Brown’s very own Sheila Crowley) who was really chilled, and said that absolutely everyone gets ‘bad’ reviews. I felt pretty sure I could handle it.

But then, POOF! The first one appeared, as irritating and inevitable as a mozzie bite on holiday, and I had a mini meltdown.

I rang Sheila. She was amazing, and then I got over it.

Furthermore, some constructive reviews include things you can really learn from (which all contributes to making you a better, stronger, more kick ass writer, right?).

Anyway, you get much tougher, very fast, and it really doesn’t matter all that much.

  • Hearing from readers never stops feeling like magic.

From the very first time a reader made the effort to get in touch with me on Twitter or Facebook to tell me their thoughts, to the present day when this happens, this experience has never stopped being humbling and wonderful.

I simply cannot thank my readers enough for taking time from their busy lives to read my books, and share their stories with me.

Without readers, are we really writers? It’s just incredible, and a true privilege. Thank you, thank you, thank you…

www.jessicathompsonbooks.com

You can follow Jessica at @Jthompsonauthor and find her at Jessica Thompson books’ on Facebook. We have five copies of The Waiting Game to give away over on Twitter today. 

Sarah Jasmon on The Summer of Secrets

Sarah Jasmon“It all started with my divorce. Before that, I’d been a writer who just didn’t write much. There’s a short story, I can’t remember by whom, in which a writer sits in his study and thinks about the stories he’s going to write. He plans them in great detail until it doesn’t seem worth putting them on paper, as they’re so perfect that he wouldn’t be able to improve them in any way, so moves on to the next. He’s supported in this by a wife who deals with all of the prosaic parts of life. When he dies and she finds no trace of his marvellous works, you’d think she’d be pretty angry, but instead she tries to get him a spot in Westminster Abbey, such is her belief in him.

I had nothing in common with him except the lack of actual, physical output. I was a home-educating stay-at-home mum without the discipline to sit down for odd half hours and make myself get on with it. At least my responsibilities gave me an excuse, one that was harder to believe in when I was given the time. Two mornings a week when my first daughter went to nursery. A whole summer when my husband had a sabbatical and we lived in a campervan in the grounds of a derelict house in France. The year when I had every Monday to myself. Didn’t finish a thing. Didn’t really start anything either.

This would have gone on forever if my marriage hadn’t broken down. I wouldn’t actively recommend it as a writing aid, but facing separation gave me space to consider what I really wanted to do with my life. At some point during the whole long, fracturing process, I picked up a newspaper on the train and read an interview with someone who’d taken an MA in Creative Writing and was about to get her book published. That, I thought, was something I could now do.

There’s a lot of talk around the effectiveness of CW courses, but mine gave me some very important tools. For the first time, I was spending time on a regular basis with people who took writing seriously. I had deadlines, both in the short term (essays and workshop contributions) and the long (a 60 000 word novel to complete for my portfolio). It gave me the incentive I needed to grab at odd half hours and just write. It also gave me a toehold within the local literary community.

My agent once told me that I was ‘just shameless enough’, which I took as a huge compliment. Gaining my MA and finishing the first draft of my novel only took me so far. Some part of me realised I had to get out there and build a network. I volunteered for Lancaster LitFest and realised that writers, even quite successful ones, will talk to you, so I started interviewing them for my blog. The following year I blogged for the Manchester Literature Festival, as well as volunteering for at various events. I joined the Notes into Letters project with the Royal Philharmonic Society, writing stories in response to music. I went to book launches and open mics and networking events. Some of this was displacement: my novel needed work before I sent it out to agents, but I just couldn’t see where to start. Being involved with and becoming part of the writing community, however, also meant I still felt like a writer, even though the MA had come to an end.

One other thing that the MA gave me was a boyfriend. His novel, A Kill In The Morning, was shortlisted for the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award and, of course, I went along for the party. A party involving a whole bunch of publishing professionals… It turns out that editors are just as lovely to talk to as writers. Graeme didn’t win, but he did get a publishing deal. And I, as a direct result of those conversations, was put in touch with Carrie Plitt, who is now my agent. Too good to be true? Haven’t finished yet.

I’d swapped emails with another editor with the idea of keeping in touch for review copies from her list, and messaged her the next day to say how nice it had been to meet up. She replied, saying she’d been on my website and noticed I’d written a book but couldn’t find it anywhere. Yes, I admitted, because it was still just a file on my computer.

By the end of the summer, Transworld had made a pre-emptive offer and I’ve had the unmatchable experience of working through the editing process with exactly the right amount of support, guidance and input. It’s so exciting to be here at last, on the actual verge of publication. My ex used to say that at least he was giving me material to write about. What he actually gave me was the freedom to get out there and make a go of it, for which I am pretty grateful. And all that material? It’s composting nicely, thanks. Watch this space.”

The Summer of Secrets

The Summer of Secrets will be published in the UK by Black Swan on 13th August.  Follow Sarah Jasmon on Twitter at @SarahontheBoat and find out more about Sarah and her writing by visiting her website. 

The Scientist: a blog post by author Anthony Trevelyan

I’ve always been rubbish at science.  Mind you, for a long time I was rubbish at everything: my first teachers, at the lovely village primary school I attended, nursed fears I may turn out to be ‘educationally subnormal’ – or, as they put it in those days, ‘a bit of a sweetheart’.  I couldn’t count, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, when my classmates were emeritus professors of the spelling book and the times table.  I got there eventually – at the reading and writing end, anyway.  Not so much at the counting end, and not so much at the science end.

It was embarrassing.  After all, my sister was good at science; my brother was very good at science; and my dad was preposterously good at science, because he was in fact a scientist.  (I don’t know whether or not my mum was good at science; but I know she loved her job at the village post office, helping the old dears with their plastic sachets of coppers.  She was a phenomenal counter: her hand a blur as it scraped up coin after low-denomination coin and squeezed them into brassy columns of exact value.)  My dad worked for a local glass-manufacturing company, modelling improvements to the glass-making processes – tweaks to furnace design, re-anglings of jet-heads.  For this reason he didn’t like you saying he was a scientist: he preferred the term ‘technologist’, because his work concerned the application of scientific ideas (technology), not the interrogation of the ideas themselves (science).  It didn’t make any difference, though.  We all just said he was a scientist.

More awkwardly, he wasn’t the sort of scientist who goes on about science all day (or the sort who stares mutely into space while other people do the talking); no, he was the sort of scientist who reads Dickens and pores over Turner prints and talks about the Middle East and Germaine Greer and Kanye West.  So, just as I realised I quite liked books and all that stuff, I saw I couldn’t take the traditional art-fart route of promoting the excellence of the arts over the sciences.  I couldn’t pretend that literature and physics were naturally and inevitably exclusive of each other, because my bloody dad had already shown that they weren’t.

Still, he did his best with me.  For my tenth birthday he bought me a junior chemistry set, no doubt hoping it would stir in me a nascent appreciation of the periodic table.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The little set, with its test tubes and ground crystals and powdered minerals, was a lovely thing, and I enjoyed it enormously.  But I felt not a jot of interest in chemistry’s underlying principles.  I just liked mixing up pretty colours, imagining I was distilling fantastic essences, magical potions.

These days I know a little bit – a very little bit – more about science; but I think my sensation of it remains pretty much as it was then.  I remember my feelings only a few years ago, when I impulse-bought an iPad on its first day of sale.  That night on the couch my girlfriend and I coiled round the luminous handheld pane, and I thought: This is magic.  I didn’t mean This is brilliant, though I thought that as well.  I meant This is sorcery.  This is old art.

Something else was the same: a slightly frightful rapidity of assimilation.  When I was ten I loved my chemistry set, and I mixed my colours and compounded my potions, and then I got bored of the thing and shoved it in a corner and never looked at it again.  That’s not exactly what happened with the iPad; I never got bored of it, though I did soon lose my awe of it.  In a matter of weeks an object that had felt like radiant contraband from a parallel universe became merely another household item, no more startling than a lamp or an umbrella.  It was assimilated, though – I think crucially – still not understood.

Later I thought about this.  If I didn’t understand it (and I didn’t), how had I managed to assimilate the iPad so quickly?  Was it because the setting in which I placed it, the familiar domestic context of lamps and umbrellas, is similarly inexplicable?  Because, though they surround me all day every day, I don’t really know how lamps or umbrellas work, either?  Because I have become habituated to living out my days in an environment that I not only do not understand, but that I cheerfully assume it’s not my business to understand?

It struck me that I may not be entirely on my own in this.  In our time and place it is a condition of life that we delegate understanding, and specifically scientific understanding, to others.  The science (and, as Dad would remind me, the technology) of our environment is too massively complicated for most of us to grasp without prolonged technical study.  And, let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to do that.  And so we are content to live in ignorance; intelligent, educated Westerners, with our esoteric knowledge of film and poetry and music, we remain glibly ignorant of the technologies every moment reshaping the world around us.  And that, I thought, has to be asking for trouble…

My ideas about where that trouble may lead, or how that trouble may come, resulted in a novel called The Weightless World.  The book isn’t really about science (or technology): more, it’s about our shared credulity in the face of miracles we don’t even try to understand.  And it’s about a pair of berks who go to India in the hope of buying an antigravity machine, which may or may not exist, from an inventor who, likewise, may or may not exist.

And, I suppose, it’s about my dad, who died in 2013, just as I was starting the book (I’d drafted the first chapter when, one Tuesday morning, my sister phoned, and said I may want to sit down).  He’s not in it or anything, but I see now that it begins from a principle he had always set for me, to use however I could: the arts do not excel the sciences; nor the sciences the arts; and yet there are miracles, real miracles, in both.

The Weightless World will be published by Galley Beggar Press on June 18th in their distinctive black paperback and ebook. You can follow Anthony on Twitter at @agmtrevelyan

My Five Favourite Historical Crime Novels by S D Sykes

Dark FireDark Fire by C.J Sansom

I could have filled this list with CJ Samson novels, but as I had to pick one, I’ve gone for ‘Dark Fire.’ Set during the reign of Henry VIIIth this novel brilliantly portrays the scheming politics of court, the vacillations of the church between Catholicism and Protestantism after the Reformation, and the grimy, bustling life of Tudor London. Sansom’s protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, employed to defend a young girl who has been wrongly accused of murder. Alongside this case, Shardlake is also engaged by Thomas Cromwell, in Cromwell’s last attempts to impress the King before his downfall. More than anything about these books, I love Shardlake’s character. He is intelligent and honorable in an age when integrity was often a bendable concept.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto EcoThe Name of the Rose

For me, the classic medieval murder mystery. Set in 1327, it follows a young novice Adso and his mentor Friar William, as they try to solve the mystery of a series of deaths at a monastery in the north of Italy. It’s brilliantly written, with a twisting plot and a truly gothic backdrop. The monastery is remote. Secrets abound. There are wizened priests, a beautiful village girl and a vast labyrinthine library. This is also a demanding book. Full of the politics of the time, and also the history of conflict within the Catholic church. A fantastic and absorbing novel.

The Devil in the MarshalseaThe Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

This novel, published last year, is the story of a young man, Tom Hawkins, who is thrown into the notorious debtors prison at the Marshalsea in 1727. His only chance of release comes if he can solve the murder of a previous inmate, and win his pardon. Based on real descriptions of the prison, it is deeply shocking in places. The prison was split into two sides. The ‘masters side’ for debtors who could afford some level of board and keep. And the ‘common side’ where debtors were subject to the most vile and degrading treatment imaginable. Written with emotion, artistry and wit, this novel keeps the reader guessing until the very last pages.

The Little StrangerThe Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The above three novels have been historical crime novels in the classic vein, with a murder, an investigation led by a detective, and then a solution. I’m including The Little Stranger, as it is has a historical setting, in the post-war years of the late forties, and it also has murder. As the old order in society changes, a great house, once staffed with many servants, falls into irreversible decay. The family cling on, but as time goes by, something, or some one wants them to leave the place. This book reeks of the gothic. A decaying mansion, doomed love, shadows, ghosts and a murder. I absolutely love it.

Company of LiarsCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland

Once again, not historical crime, in the murder mystery mould, but still full of history and death. This is the story of a gaggle of misfits who band together to escape the Black Death. As they travel through England, always keeping one step ahead of the Plague, they are picked off, one by one by a force that is more evil than the disease they are fleeing. Brimming with atmosphere and historical detail, this was the novel that convinced me to write about the 14th century.

S D Sykes’s debut novel Plague Land, the first in the Oswald de Lacey series, will be published by Hodder in paperback on 21st May 2015. Follow S D Sykes on Twitter at @SD_Sykes and find out more about Plague Land and the Oswald de Lacey series at sdsykes.co.uk.

For your chance to win one of five signed copies of the book, visit @CBBookGroup on Twitter between 18th and 22nd May and look out for one of our competition tweets.

Historical Crime Week: Why I Love Historical Crime by S D Sykes

We’re handing over control of our blog to author S D Sykes for the next five days as we celebrate everything we love about historical crime. Look out for more exclusive blogs here throughout the week and don’t forget to follow @cbbookgroup on Twitter for your chance to win one of five signed copies of S D Sykes’s debut novel, Plague Land.

“Why historical crime?” we hear you ask…well, we’ll let our host will explain…

Colour head and shoulders crop“It’s historical crime week at the Curtis Brown reading group so, as host, I’m going to use this opportunity to shamelessly promote my own particular genre. Now, I know there are some among you who remain resistant to its charms. I sometimes meet you at book clubs or library talks, when you saunter over to me with an expression of embarrassment, even guilt, written across your face. You often won’t make eye contact as you then spill out your confession. ‘I don’t usually read historical crime,’ you admit, before leaning over conspiratorially. ‘But I did enjoy your book.’

So, how can I convince more of you to try it out? To become proud readers of historical crime fiction. Because the genre is home to some truly excellent writing. Firstly, if you love the cut and thrust of contemporary crime, then there’s absolutely nothing not to love about historical crime. Our novels bear all the same fundamental characteristics. In short, there’s a murder, an investigation and a resolution.

If there is a difference, then it’s this. The investigator, and I use this word rather than detective, does not have the tools of modern day policing at his or her disposal. Most novels are set before any sort of police force came into being, and there is certainly no forensic science to rely upon – other than perhaps an understanding of poisonous herbs or the characteristics of rigor mortis. Personally, I love this aspect of historical crime. The murder can only be solved by the deduction of clues. The cross-examination of suspects, and the scrutiny of personality. By logic, combined with sudden bursts of insight. It’s all the stuff of great novels… without a lab coat or DNA swab in sight.

There’s also the history to consider. I have a feeling that readers sometimes believe that historical fiction is not for them, as it says nothing about their lives. I tend to feel the opposite. The more I research into my own period of interest, the 14th century, the more I can identify with people from the past. Reading the works of Boccaccio or Chaucer, both written in the 1300s, I endlessly come across the same people I meet in my contemporary life. Humans remain what they have always been, a complex mixture of emotions, desires, neuroses and selflessness. I find this reassuring.

What’s different, of course, is the environment. But once again, this is another aspect of the genre to love. I’m reading a fast-paced, gripping crime novel, but I’m also running through a crowded street in 18th century London, or I’m sitting in the refectory of a monastery, and perhaps I’m discussing the politics of the Catholic church in the middle ages, or I’m just gossiping about the rotten food or the state of the latrines. There is a misconception that historical fiction is either about battles, the royal family, or involves the copious ripping of bodices. I’m not saying that these books don’t exist, but there is so much more. My own favourite novels tell the story of ordinary people, their struggles for survival in the days before medicine, education and democracy. And good historical fiction doesn’t throw the history at you in crude spoonfuls, instead it allows the world to gently envelop you and transport you effortlessly into the past. You learn stuff, without even trying.

So I say. Go on. Don’t be embarrassed. Give it a try.”

S D Sykes’s debut novel Plague Land, the first in the Oswald De Lacey series, will be published by Hodder in paperback on 21st May 2015. Follow S D Sykes on Twitter at @SD_Sykes and find out more about Plague Land and the Oswald De Lacey series at sdsykes.co.uk.

For your chance to win one of five signed copies of the book, visit @CBBookGroup on Twitter between 18th and 22nd May and look out for one of our competition tweets.

The Rocky Road of The Rocks by Peter Nichols

Some time ago, I felt washed up as a writer. I’d published five books: a memoir, a Peter Nichols imagenovel, three other books of non-fiction, all on maritime subjects—washed up, get it? I once lived aboard a small wooden sailboat, cruising between the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, England, the USA, making my living as a yacht captain, and I was steeped—marinated— in boats and the sea. But I felt I’d exhausted this material. I wanted to write something, preferably fiction, in a way that I never had, but always wanted to, without knowing exactly what that was.

I made many false starts. Bits of novels that inevitably seemed to veer toward water, like reverse evolution, before I abandoned them. I got very depressed about my writing career. I got very broke too.

After several years, I had six pages that I liked. They were unlike anything I’d ever written. It was a scene that happened—yes, on a rocky shore—in Mallorca, where I spent many summers when I was young, but I knew it really had nothing to do with the sea. It was about two very angry octogenarians, a man and a woman, Gerald and Lulu,  who met on a dirt road beside the sea, quarrelled, and had an accident so definitive that it seemed to be the end of the story. But it wasn’t even a story, it went nowhere. It only posed a big question: who were these two and why were they so pissed off at each other, after all this time?

I couldn’t go forward with it, so I decided to look backwards into their lives to see what had happened to them. Gradually, things filled in about Gerald and Lulu: they’d once been married, but long ago. They’d had children (by later marriages to other people), Luc and Aegina, and they seemed pretty pissed off with each other too. I saw distant episodes in all these earlier lives, as if from a long way off.

So I started writing backwards, in reverse chronology. I wrote towards those distant views —1995, 1983, 1970, and so on. I stopped and looked around when I got to each place. The episodes were each just a few weeks long at most. There was a compelling dynamic to this retroactive unfolding: the characters all grew younger, more innocent, more hopeful—they didn’t know what was coming. It was fascinating to see them ineluctably moving toward missed opportunities, heartbreak, the seemingly small mistakes that would resound through a lifetime.

Most of all, I wanted to see what had happened to Gerald and Lulu. What had engendered such bitterness that lasted more than half a century? I didn’t know for the longest time; only that it was something sad and awful that had rent and scarred their lives, and impacted everything and everyone around them until their deaths. I had to write all the way back to 1948 to see it unfold.

Eventually, I had a 500-page manuscript. I still wasn’t sure what it was—“a novel of manners,” one reader friend told me, “an emotional thriller,” someone else said. I sent it to my longtime agent, who had sold my all previous books—he’d represented me for 17 years. It was an unusually long time before he got back to me. This is what he said:

‘There is so much wrong with this book I don’t begin to know how to tell you to fix it.’

We had a short conversation in which he listed all the things that didn’t work for him. It sounded as if he was talking about some other book. It was devastating.

And he cut me loose.

Evidently I had succeeded—grandly—in my goal to write something different. I was no longer recognizable (or of interest) to my agent who had sold my books about maritime misadventure, sailors going mad in a boat race, whaleship disasters, and such manly fare. I had either reinvented—or destroyed—myself as a writer.

I was now in the position of many desperate writers: a manuscript and no agent. It didn’t help that I had published other books; these were looked at almost as liabilities. I was not new and unknown and therefore possibly exciting. I was like many writers with a stalled career, dropped by their agents, the gloss off, trying something different.

A friend in London, Kate Griffin, a partner at Profile Books, who had published all my books in England, sent my orphaned manuscript to Patrick Walsh, of the literary agency Conville and Walsh. He agreed to look at it.

Weeks went by. I had the gloomiest thoughts.

Finally, I heard from Conville and Walsh: “We’ve had a very good report on your novel from our reader. Patrick’s going to read it now.”

More weeks. Another email from Conville and Walsh: “We’ve had a second very good report about your novel. We’re printing it out now for Patrick to read.”

Very soon afterwards, I got a call from Patrick Walsh. We had a conversation about all the things that he liked so much about the book—a sort of point by point rebuttal of the call I’d had with my former agent. Patrick wanted to send it to a freelance editor he knew, Gillian Stern. Then he sent me Gillian’s email reply, which read, in part:

‘I haven’t enjoyed – derived so much pleasure – from a novel in a long while…what zest, what dialoge, what conviction, what a cast of characters, what an affirmation of all that a novel should be… How often do I send emails like this??!’

The rest happened fast, mostly through the skill and devotion of Patrick Walsh. He took the manuscript with him to Kenya and while there—on holiday—did a speedy and masterful line-by-line edit in hastily scrawled pencil. He asked me to come to London (I live in the USA) for 5 days to meet editors. When I got there, we had several offers, and he sold the book to Susan Watt and her own imprint, Heron Books, at Quercus Books. Patrick then submitted it to publishers in New York. Several offers there too, and it sold to the visionary Sarah McGrath, editor-in-chief (and editor of Khaled Hosseini) at Riverhead Books.

The Rocks—a novel about love, heartbreak and relationships—has been handsomely embraced on both sides of the Atlantic, especially by women. It has been featured in a chicklit blog. It is reviewed in the coming June editions of Cosmopolitan, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, and others. I have happily left harpoons astern and seem— for the moment, things can change fast—to have a new career as a novelist writing about the ineffable affairs of the human heart.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was lucky my manuscript was rejected by my former agent. I was luckier still that The Rocks found its way to Patrick Walsh, and now, to the Curtis Brown Book Group.

 

The Rocks by Peter Nichols will be published in paperback  by Heron Books on July 2nd 2015.  It’s already available in hardback and ebook. Follow Peter on Twitter at @NicholsRocks.

Motherland, a novel, by Jo McMillan

(c) Guy Batey

(c) Guy Batey

It’s election night 1979 and we’re having a party. My mum is drinking Bull’s Blood punch from a Meissen teacup and raising a toast to defeat.

Except it isn’t my mum.

It’s Eleanor, my fictional mother, and they aren’t the same person.

Motherland is a novel. It says so on the cover. But it didn’t start out that way. When I first sat down to tell the story of my communist childhood, it was going to be a memoir. The story was true. I’d lived it. I knew what happened. And I understood non-fiction. I’d spent a while in academia. Strange to think it now, but at one time, my favourite place was the British Library and my seat there never quite cooled. I was patient and forensic and I liked dissection. I spent my working life in a library, but it could just as well have been a morgue.

And the odd thing is, I did end up dealing with a corpse. My dad died for Motherland, and I killed him off. In 1978, when the story opens, my father – the real one – was not in a tin in my mum’s knicker drawer. He was in the middle of a tricky divorce. I wasn’t far into this memoir when it dawned on me I’d had a complicated life. In fact, I’d had two – one drama with each parent – and I couldn’t tell both in this book. I wanted my protagonists to live their singular story in the way my mother and I never did. So my father got terminal cancer before his child was born, Jo and Isobel became Jess and Eleanor, and Motherland became fiction.

I’d never felt more relieved. I was released from my duty to fact, and facts were proving thin on the ground. The first necessity for this story might have arisen in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but the End of the World as you’ve known it isn’t something you just sit down and write about. So instead, I forgot about it. And I did what everyone else was doing with the triumph of capitalism: I went shopping.

And then I went to China.

It was a long way from everything that had happened, and where millions of other people were buying their way out of their political past.

And in China, I had to reinvent myself. I wasn’t going to be a career communist anymore, so instead I became a sexologist, a Mandarin-speaking one – until I said some things the authorities didn’t like and Beijing banned me.

But by then, twenty years had gone by: long enough to face the End of the World, too long for the documents and witnesses I needed. I asked around Party circles, and papers had been binned, people had died, memories were slipping. Facts were not going to tell my story. The library wasn’t going to help. Instead, I had to look inwards. And it felt bruising, and oddly heartless, to tell emotional truths – harder still to commit them to paper.

But at least this was fiction. I wasn’t pointing fingers and naming names in the prosecution of my past. And that was important. Motherland was turning into a book about how we’d been engaged in the politics of abstracts, of people in theory, and we’d had no time for the real ones we actually knew. It was a book about empathy, about how much people mattered, so it needed to be an empathetic book. If Motherland had been memoir, the people I most cared about might never have forgiven me.

But they weren’t in it. I had fictional characters – flawed ones: self-righteous, ruthless, pliant.

And my plan was to set them in motion and watch their logic play out.

Only the problem was, it didn’t.

The biggest flaw of my flawed characters was they had no idea of the story. And neither had I. The possibilities seemed endless. I was free to make things up, but that meant I could make anything up. Real events had ceased to apply, so of the thousands of things that could happen next, which actually did? I didn’t have an agenda, a plan, a clue, it turned out. I read novels, of course, lapping them up, but I had no idea what made them tick. And now, here I was in charge of a novel, and I felt sick. I’d have given anything for certainty, for academia – at times even the morgue.

So I did what a mortician manqué would do: I got out the scalpel. I stopped consuming novels and started dissecting them. I took apart books on plot and pinned the walls with three-act structures. On the telly too: I watched dramas and guessed what would happen. Sometimes I even got it right. I became the spoiler on the sofa.

It took many drafts, but in the end, and several years after my father’s literary death, he is still alive and I have a novel. I wrote something kinder than a memoir, and a story wider than the specifics of my past. Through the made-up minutiae of Jess and Eleanor’s lives, Motherland looks outwards – at how we do politics, at how much people matter, at when to take a stand. And because politics doesn’t go away, the questions it raises still apply. There’s not that much difference between 1979 and 2015.

Motherland is fiction and my mum isn’t Eleanor (though Eleanor wouldn’t have been possible without her). After this election, I asked my mum how she’d seen it in. Wrapped up in her dressing gown, she said, because she feels the cold these days. And she’d raised a glass of Baileys, because that’s her tipple, and she’d toasted defeat. ‘And then I toasted the revolution,’ because my mum’s never defeated for long. And ‘because the revolution’s coming.’

‘In my lifetime?’

‘Of course in your lifetime.’ And then a pause. ‘How old are you now?’

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published in hardback and ebook by John Murray on July 2nd 2015.  Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcMillan and find out more about Motherland and Jo by visiting her website jomcmillan.com.

Tammy Cohen on Self Doubt

Author Tammy Cohen’s latest novel, The Broken, is a chilling story of divorce and loyalty (think Girl on the Train meets The Husband’s Secret). Here, she tells us about that universal feeling: self doubt…

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I am a serial killer. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve murdered at various stages of life or gestation. My hard-drive and bottom drawer (let’s draw a veil over the stack of cardboard boxes in the loft) are a graveyard of unfinished novels, their narrative-arcs cruelly truncated, their futures un-played out.

81hqyXHj+DLI wish I could blame perfectionism or a compulsive need to experiment with form, but there’s only one reason behind the Killing Fields that are my writing history: self doubt.

Ian Rankin calls it The Fear – that horrible, bile-inducing conviction that comes to you somewhere between 10,000 words and 30,000 words that what you are writing is the worst thing ever written. By anyone. At any time. What on earth made you think this was a good plot for a book? Which misguided idiot gave you the idea you could write?

It was Iris Murdoch who said ‘every book is the wreck of a good idea’.  How wise she was. Before I start a novel, I’ve usually convinced myself my idea for it is the best I’ve ever had. Scratch that, the best anyone ever had. I can see it so clearly in my mind’s eye – this perfectly conceived and executed gem that will become an instant classic, be showered with prizes and awards and have other writers kicking themselves that they didn’t think of it first.  When people ask what my new book will be about I say, ‘I can’t tell you’, in an infuriatingly smug way, so convinced am I that everyone will want to steal my Precious.

My enthusiasm carries me through the first few thousand words, but then they start to crawl in. The doubts. They’re like ants – every time I block up one hole, they find another to swarm in through. Really? they say. That’s it? Your grand idea? Plot holes I previously glossed over in excitement become fathomless craters. The characters are ridiculous, two dimensional. Rather than leaping off the page, they flatten themselves to it like stickers. There’s a reason no one has written this book before – and that’s because it’s crap.

Author Sadie Jones, whose debut novel The Outcast won the Costa award in 2008, perfectly describes this agonising realisation that the book you’ve ended up writing is a million miles from the masterpiece you’d conceived of. “You imagine, before you start, there’s a cathedral,’ she said in an Observer interview,  “and the moment it starts on the page, it’s a garden shed.”

It’s at this point that Past Me always gave up. What’s the point in investing time in something that not only isn’t perfect, but some mornings you can’t even bear to look at? I’d abandon the work in progress and move on to the next one. And then the next, a pattern that only stopped when, in desperation, I sent the first 10,000 words of a novel to Vivienne Schuster at Curtis Brown.

While she didn’t sign me up on the spot, prompting a 12-way bidding war on the basis of those 10,000 words, she did tell me it had commercial potential. And that was enough. I gritted my teeth, ploughed on through the doubts and finished the book in three months.

So, I’d like to say I never experienced those crippling doubts again. But that would be a lie. Each book I start, there they are again, like unwelcome holiday guests who keep returning year after year, even though the hotelier has banned them. But now I’m on Book Seven, I’ve finally worked out some coping strategies:

Stop aiming for perfection, and just get the words down. You can always change them at second draft stage.

Write for yourself, as if no one else will ever read it.

Read David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay ‘The Nature of the Fun’ where he compares the work in progress to a deformed infant, and concludes the only way to avoid being overcome with revulsion for the hideous creature we’ve created is to get back to seeing work as fun rather than self exposure.

Remember every top writer has doubts – and besides, anything that puts you in the same boat as Ian Rankin can’t be bad. Right?

Tamar Cohen’s fourth novel The Broken comes out in paperback today, published by Black Swan

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers by Louise Candlish

Louise CandlishLouise Candlish, author

“The Sudden Departure of the Frasers sprang from my fascination – and dismay – with our modern obsession with home owning.

When I was invited to a dinner party recently I was surprised to be issued in advance with a list of banned subjects of conversation – number one of which was house prices. (Number two was schools.)

Well, I can report that it proved impossible for the guests to obey, for it seems we are no longer normal chemically-balanced citizens but addicts who have allowed ourselves to become irrationally fixated on bricks and mortar. And the higher prices rise, the stronger is the desire to chase the dream. We are all complicit in it.

With this novel I wanted to build a story around the hollow heart of the so-called forever home (somehow, that term manages to be both nauseating and sinister). Number 40 Lime Park Road is a beautiful house and yet it is for sale at under market value, even though it’s just been extravagantly renovated. (The bath tub is made of copper and imported from Mexico; as Christy’s mother remarks, ‘I haven’t seen those taps in B&Q.’) While not quite a castle in the air, the deal is certainly too good to be true and Christy and Joe neglect to ask themselves why until it’s far too late.

The difficulty, it emerges, is the man at number 42, Rob Whalen. He is not a neighbour to knock at the door with a basket of muffins any time soon. Behaviour that at first strikes Christy as churlish quickly becomes downright threatening. Clearly he has something to hide – and the other residents of Lime Park Road seem peculiarly determined to aid that concealment.

Of course, I’m not saying that every house purchase will end in tears at the hands of a neighbour of questionable repute, but what is true is that while house hunters spend a great deal of time targeting and plotting and counting (steps to the station, feet to the school gate) we spare remarkably little thought for the people whose heads will be placed on pillows little more than an arm span from our own. The Frasers’/Davenports’ master bedroom is separated by a wall of bricks from Rob’s living room. When Amber is making love with her husband Jeremy, Rob is sitting a couple of metres away. She describes the back-to-back fireplaces as conjoined hearts, an inappropriately romantic image, as it turns out.

So often it is too close for comfort. I have friends who bought a run-down semi-detached house in a desirable postcode and renovated it to resemble a boutique hotel, as the Frasers do, only to be driven out by noisy neighbours before they’d had the chance to sip their Nespressos on their newly decked roof terrace. As my friend explains, it is not just bad behaviour that distresses, it is your permanent state of anticipation of that bad behavior. It’s your horror at your mistake, your powerlessness to set things right.

Thanks (partly) to Rob Whalen, the Davenports are, by the end of the book, in exactly this position, poised to follow in the footsteps of the Frasers and vacate their dream house. Forever comes rather sooner than expected as they wonder if too much has been sacrificed for the privilege of inhabiting their high-status Lime Park home. (Of being able to say they inhabit it to envious family and friends.)

So why have we all succumbed to this gold rush? Why do we insist on prostrating ourselves at the feet of the property gods? Why must we own when we could rent or share or relocate or join a commune or travel the world in a camper van? People cite security, they say they want something tangible to mark their life’s achievements, a solid legacy for the kids. But if you are childfree or keen to raise competent and independent children then you shouldn’t need to plan your living arrangements with a thought to who will take the keys when you’re gone. Live life freely, that’s what I say; we’ll have plenty of time to browse Zoopla when we’re dead.

I’m eager to hear how the first readers will interpret The Sudden Departure of the Frasers because for me it was conceived with a clear aim: it is a cautionary tale. The flesh of intriguing, flawed characters like Amber Fraser and Rob Whalen grew on the bones of the central parable. I’m interested in what our sacrifices are when we make these life-shaping property decisions and whether they are worth it.

I’m interested in asking, if it were us who had to flee like the Frasers, where would we go? And who would miss us?”

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers will be published by Penguin on 21st May.  Follow Louise on Twitter at @Louise_Candlish and find out more about Louise and her writing by visiting louisecandlish.co.uk.